First National Barbershop, earlyday photo, Norman Thompson collection, courtesy of Doug Loudenback. The barbershop was largely unchanged when it closed last year after a rent dispute between the operators and the building owner. The space remains dark one year later, and the owner says he does not rule out eventually gutting the space for a different use. First National Center is currently about 60 percent vacant.
Re: First National Building
120 N. Robinson
At 55, I do not consider myself to be so old that I live in the past, yet I do have appreciation for great things that were created before I was born, and certainly that is the case with historic buildings. When the First National Bank Building was constructed in 1931 at great expense, it was truly an “A” class building, and both the exterior and interior features revealed it. Since it was so high-end, and not average, people wanted to lease space in it. As the Great Depression ended, the building filled up, and there was a waiting list time and time again. Before I was born, relatives of mine from both sides of the family worked in the building; my mother’s older brother was an officer with the First National Bank, and my paternal grandfather, uncle and father leased a suite for The Hefner Company. My childhood was filled with endless trips through the building, and year after year, I loved seeing a huge, decorated tree in the Great Banking Hall at Christmas. When I began my own career, it was not long before I reported to a land company in the newer section, the middle building. In the early 1980s, during yet another oil boom for Oklahoma City, I could not walk from one end of the ground-level arcade to the other without running into numerous people that I knew. Such meetings were so helpful in the conduct of my business. Overall, it was great fun working downtown. What changed? The crash of that oil boom carried the First National Bank with it. The building had, as I remember, 33 lenders. The ownership changed and changed again. There were issues of “deferred maintenance,” and certain things had become obsolete simply by the passage of time. One group stepped forward and bought the building, but actually just wanted the “cash cow” of the adjacent parking garage. So, this group kept the cash-producing asset that could have been used to slowly, but surely renovate the building, but got rid of the building itself. That was such a damaging turning point! Several owners since then have failed to have the vision to see that this architectural gem was built to be an “A” class building. Sadly, more “minimalist maintenance” came with the passage of time. As the structures on other corners have achieved lower vacancy rates, the First National has not. Over the years, landlords of the First National have let The Beacon Club, the Post Office, a travel agency, and other amenities slip away from their spaces. Key law firms and oil companies have left too. The current owners lost the barber shop; today, I know of two other tenant-service enterprises planning to leave.
The current owners, as far as I am concerned, have been big on promises, but minimal on spending what is needed. I feel that they, too, do not see the Class “A” fundamentals of the building. A couple of times, I have tried to convince these Los Angeles-based owners to spend money for quality renovations, yet I failed. I have asked for the once-operational elevator security system to be repaired, but it has not. Instead, I find their attitudes are reflected by policies of getting the building locked up as soon as possible at night and on the weekends, as well as shutting off the heat and air immediately at the end of “the business day.” In-house retailers of clothing, coffee, even massages cannot get people inside very easily at all on the weekends.
Last week, while historic art-deco paint continued to peel, and old, stained carpet remained in place in the elevator cars, the owners announced a “Phase I” renovation plan to begin on March 12, 2008. Expensive signs were placed on walls throughout the building saying “First National reborn.” There was a reception for the tenants, but I was too ill to attend.
I learned later, to my great shock, to begin this “renovation,” the press photographed Lt. Gov. Jeri Askins operating a jackhammer blowing holes in the marble floor in the original part of the building! What was she thinking? What are the owners thinking? The marble floor is part of that “A” quality! Why would the owners break up big squares of marble? The money needed to replace this quality flooring could be spent instead of restoring the 1930s art-deco paint design that is peeling above!
And, there is a 1960s era middle building that is in dire need of getting the basis repaired. Why jackhammer a perfectly-good marble floor? I would have thought the Lt. Gov. Askins would have had a better understanding for things that are not only high-quality, but also historic.
A spokesperson for the management defended the action to me in my phone call, but only convinced me the owners do not understand the attraction of “historic” and how important that could become in making the venerable First National as an office address people prefer. Furthermore, a restoration (not a budget-minded partial remodeling) would restore the long-lost trust that potential tenants could feel through watching –finally – some First National owners spending enough money and spending it correctly on making things right. In my business career, I have learned that “attraction” works far better than “promotions,” and I am deeply troubled that the current owners are willing to do irreparable harm to this Oklahoma City landmark in favor of the latter. Restoration of the original quality is the missing ingredient for the future security of the one and only First National. Steve, I would like to thank you for taking an interest in the preservation of the historic First National Center.
Sincerely, W. John Hefner, Jr
Read more about this in today’s Main Street column.